Soundhole pickups were eclipsed by under the saddle piezo pickup since the 70’s, but the new breed of the magnetic pickups offer far better sound than their ancestors.  As George Costanza would say, “I’m back, Baby!”

We took two popular soundhole pickups for a test drive side by side…literally…to compare how the sound and how they perform.  The pickups are the Fishman Rare Earth Humbucking and the L.R. Baggs M1a.


We placed the pickups in our battered, but trusty, Gibson Southerner Jumbo (a slightly fancier version of the Gibson J-45) and ran both pickup into our recorder with the EQ set flat, and no reverb or effects whatsoever.


Each time each pickup was auditioned, the dialog microphone was shut off; so each sample is the sound of that pickup and that pickup alone.  We ran the gamut of strumming, fingerpicking, single note soloing, and chord melody playing.


Both of the pickups are active and have a battery to power the pre-amp.  As per the norm these days, the endpin/input jack has a built-in switch that cuts the battery power when the guitar is unplugged.  Both also feature an onboard volume control.


Early soundhole pickups such as those made by De Armond, were basically the same design as electric guitar pickups.  At one point, some De Armond pickups were made without a polepiece for the B string, since this thicker unwound string was typically much hotter than the thinner unwound high E string and the less magnetic brass wound lower four strings.


Piezo pickups gained popularity because it was deemed they sounded more “acoustic.”  Working on a different principle than soundhole pickups which sense the string’s vibration in the pickups’ magnetic field, piezos are sensitive to pressure and vibration.  When a piezo sense vibration, it emits an electrical signal which can be amplified.  Since the pickup is attached to the top of the guitar, or under the saddle where it can pickup the vibration of the string and the top, the signal it emits corresponds to those vibrations.  In a sense, the guitar’s top is the equivalent to the diaphragm of a microphone.


These pickups, paired with a pre-amp (which was usually conveniently placed onboard the guitar) gain immense popularity with the acoustic playing public first with Ovation, and shortly afterward with Takamine, where they a standard feature.  Eventually, the other major manufacturers would offer a piezo pickup option.


The after-market pickup blossomed soon afterwards (of course it was around before with the likes of Barcus Berry and F.R.A.P.) as many guitarist already had their favorite acoustic that merely lacked the electronics.

Both Fishman and L.R. Baggs offered these aftermarket pickups, and they soon not only became the leaders in the industry, but the primary innovators as well.


Both company saw an opportunity to expand up the lowly soundhole pickup, but took different routes to achieve a high fidelity that would revival that of their piezo pickup.


Fishman design their pickup around the newer Rare Earth magnets.  These pickups provide a more crystalline top end than the Alnico magnets used previously.  One paired with a pre-amp, these pickups sounded more acoustic than previous offerings…and were feedback resistant, to boot.


L.R. Baggs took a different approach.  The second hum-cancelling coil is suspended in such as was to sense the vibration of the guitar’s top.  This signal makes the pickup almost microphonic: microphonic enough that tapping on the pickup with a pick reveals the higher frequencies it targets with a loud click.


Both pickups are formable and there is not a winner—nor was this a competition to begin with…but rather, a side by side comparison to provide audio samples so the guitarist can make a more informed decision.


Watch the video here.

Originally posted 2012-11-07 03:38:23.